Community Rallies around Teachers; Crackdown on Strike Blows Lid off Pressure Cooker in Oaxaca, Mexico

By Cornell, Deirdre | National Catholic Reporter, October 13, 2006 | Go to article overview

Community Rallies around Teachers; Crackdown on Strike Blows Lid off Pressure Cooker in Oaxaca, Mexico


Cornell, Deirdre, National Catholic Reporter


Letters from Oaxaca: First in a series

One of the many things I love about Mexico is its different relationship to time. While we of the North hold stereotypes about habitual lateness and a lazy way of life, another dimension of this relationship rings true. Oaxaca is home to a 2,000-year-old ahuehuete, the most ancient tree in the world. From the window of our apartment, we can glimpse the ruins of Monte Alban, an architectural masterpiece and astronomical observatory whose first layer dates from 500 B.C. And once when I asked a friend, Don Max, about his community, he began, "Our village was founded in 1581." A sense of history--and of ourselves as part of humanity's successive waves of suffering and hope--is much more present here. It helps to give a longer view.

These days, I find myself grasping often at this longer view. As lay missioners living and working in Oaxaca, my husband and I witness how a broad-based movement sparked by the public teachers' union has met with repression from the state government. Any day now Oaxacans expect the Preventative Federal Police of the Mexican army to attack. Helicopters have been circling and troops have moved into position. Word of mouth says 3,000 men.

Rural states like Oaxaca have always been poor; the clinic where my husband works treats patients from areas with no electricity, potable water or other services. (According to which set of statistics one uses, up to 75 percent of Oaxacans can be said to live in poverty.) But now, small farmers must compete in a globalized economy--or leave their farms. In Don Max's village, schoolchildren do not aspire to be doctors or lawyers, but rather to emigrate to the United States. A secondary option is internal migration to one of the new settlements--aka shantytowns--surrounding urban areas. Along with Chiapas and Guerrero, Oaxaca is one of the three poorest states in the country. But it is also a state of great wealth: Oaxaca is one of five states with the highest percentage of indigenous population. Around two-thirds of the state's people belong to one of 16 indigenous groups originating in seven distinct geographical regions. These regions come together in the yearly Guelaguetza: a celebration of song and dance that symbolizes a spirit of sharing and characterizes a whole way of life.

Each May for 26 years, the teachers' union of Oaxaca (Section 22 of the National Educational Workers Union, commonly called the Magisterium) has routinely called for negotiations with the state government. May 15 is Teachers' Day, and all month various workers' vocations are celebrated. (Our children learned in school about the Haymarket martyrs.) This year the teachers' demands focused on a rezonification process that would raise the living allowances for teachers working in remote areas. However, Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz did not sit down to negotiate--he was away campaigning for his party's presidential candidate. In an abrupt departure from custom, he sent a message instead: Go ahead, take over the city. So the teachers did. Starting May 22, the 70,000 preschool, primary and secondary school teachers took shifts staging a sit-in of the downtown area (roughly 50 city blocks surrounding the main plaza, called the ZOcalo). They set up a radio station. They blocked entrances to banks, highways and government offices. Traffic--already nightmarish--became almost unbearable. Schools closed and classes were canceled until further notice.

Our next-door neighbors, the godparents of our twin girls, have three cousins who belong to the teachers' union. While in town to serve their shift at the sit-in, they would come by for showers and a hot meal, their children in tow.

Early in the morning of June 14, three branches of armed personnel (municipal, state and ministerial police) entered the teachers' encampment where some 600 men, women and children were sleeping. As dawn broke, police tore apart the makeshift encampment, destroying food supplies, bedding and other belongings. …

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